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South Korea’s Presidential Snub of Pelosi Was an Unforced Blunder

Yoon Suk-yeol simply isn’t up to international diplomacy.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol greets a soccer player.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol greets a soccer player.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) greets soccer player Son Heung-min at Seoul World Cup Stadium on June 2. South Korean Presidential Office via Getty Images

Whether you were for or against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Asia, you can’t overstate its importance. The legislator became the highest U.S. official to visit Taiwan, prompting a furious response from Beijing and adding to a U.S.-China rivalry that will shape the 21st century. Pelosi was welcomed by crowds in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. On the Malaysia leg of her whirlwind tour, she lunched with Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. In Japan, she met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

But after completing her historic visit to Taiwan, Pelosi’s flight landed at the U.S. Air Force base in Osan, South Korea—where no Korean official came to greet her. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol sent his regrets, saying he was on vacation. South Korea has been the only country where she did not meet with a head of state or government. Pelosi skipped the press conference when she arrived at her hotel in Seoul, with a U.S. Embassy official telling the local media that she was “very displeased” with the lack of welcome.

Yoon’s snub of Pelosi is bewildering. It is not as if Pelosi caught Seoul by surprise: Her visit to Taiwan may have been under wraps until the last minute, but her visit to South Korea was not. It is also not as if South Korea believes in the sanctity of presidential vacations. Yoon—who once advocated for a 120-hour work week—only took office less than three months ago and is already on holiday. His predecessors have often put their vacations on hold to meet with visiting dignitaries for occasions far less momentous than this one.

Whether you were for or against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Asia, you can’t overstate its importance. The legislator became the highest U.S. official to visit Taiwan, prompting a furious response from Beijing and adding to a U.S.-China rivalry that will shape the 21st century. Pelosi was welcomed by crowds in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. On the Malaysia leg of her whirlwind tour, she lunched with Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. In Japan, she met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

But after completing her historic visit to Taiwan, Pelosi’s flight landed at the U.S. Air Force base in Osan, South Korea—where no Korean official came to greet her. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol sent his regrets, saying he was on vacation. South Korea has been the only country where she did not meet with a head of state or government. Pelosi skipped the press conference when she arrived at her hotel in Seoul, with a U.S. Embassy official telling the local media that she was “very displeased” with the lack of welcome.

Yoon’s snub of Pelosi is bewildering. It is not as if Pelosi caught Seoul by surprise: Her visit to Taiwan may have been under wraps until the last minute, but her visit to South Korea was not. It is also not as if South Korea believes in the sanctity of presidential vacations. Yoon—who once advocated for a 120-hour work week—only took office less than three months ago and is already on holiday. His predecessors have often put their vacations on hold to meet with visiting dignitaries for occasions far less momentous than this one.

This isn’t a moment when Yoon can afford to make mistakes. Thanks to the difficult economy, resurgence of COVID-19 cases, and his own missteps—including an inexplicable move of the presidential office out of the Blue House and a series of dubious cabinet appointments—Yoon’s approval rating has cratered at 24 percent in the latest Gallup Korea poll, a range last seen in October 2016 shortly before the so-called candlelight protests began against then-president Park Geun-hye, leading to her impeachment and removal.

This wasn’t a logistical problem. Yoon was on staycation in Seoul, just miles away from Pelosi. On the night of Pelosi’s arrival, Yoon and his wife were watching a play called The Tenants of Line 2. In a photo that went viral on social media—next to a photo of Pelosi landing in an airport devoid of any South Korean presence—the red-faced Yoon was shown having a drink with the play’s cast.

South Korea’s Office of the President only added to the confusion. Initially, it held the line that Yoon would not meet with Pelosi due to his vacation. Then, as Pelosi’s plane was approaching South Korea, the presidential office changed its story twice—first to say they were in talks to have a meeting after all, then to deny there were any such talks. Senior presidential staff also claimed that Yoon meeting with Pelosi would be “inappropriate” because her formal counterpart would be the head of South Korea’s legislature, apparently oblivious to the fact that Pelosi was meeting with the chief executives of four other Asian countries she was visiting.

In the end, Yoon salvaged a face-saving phone call with Pelosi in the afternoon of the day after her arrival, only after she visited the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament, in the morning, where she received a belated honor guard welcome hosted by Kim Jin-pyo, speaker of the assembly from the liberal opposition.

Many have interpreted Yoon’s snub of Pelosi not only as a gaffe but also as a heel turn toward China. Yoon’s office stated that his decision not to meet with Pelosi was “decided in consideration of our national interest as a whole”—in other words, Yoon considered it in South Korea’s national interest to decline a meeting with the U.S. speaker of the House. Unusually, the presidential office produced no photos of Yoon speaking on the phone with Pelosi, apparently because he “felt awkward because he was at home wearing comfortable clothes and did not do his hair.” Some suspected, however, that Yoon was avoiding a photo op that would anger Beijing.

In a separate briefing, the Office of the President also said it would not use the term “Chip4,” the U.S.-led semiconductor alliance with Japan and Taiwan, explaining the term came across as “exclusionary” and South Korea will continue working with China on semiconductor supply chains. On the day Pelosi was leaving, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin announced that he will visit China in the following week to meet with his counterpart, Wang Yi.

But perhaps Yoon’s snub was not all that intentional, as his foreign-policy fumbles are becoming a pattern. Nicknamed “a gaffe a day” during the presidential campaign, Yoon is not an eloquent orator or graceful presence. The career prosecutor and political novice barely won the presidential election in March with the narrowest margin in South Korean history by pandering to sexism and grievances about real estate taxes.

Koreans like to say, “A bucket that leaks indoors also leaks outdoors.” Accordingly, Yoon’s troubles have followed him abroad. Yoon attended his first major international event in June at the NATO summit held in Madrid—a critical meet as the Ukraine-Russia war was ongoing. At the historical occasion of being the first South Korean president to attend a NATO summit, Yoon appeared lost and awkward. News coverage of the summit often showed Yoon standing by himself in a crowd of global leaders who ignored him.

Meanwhile, First Lady Kim Geon-hee, who accompanied her husband, also appeared confused, as she “seemed not yet familiar with the protocol and was hesitant on how to greet or where to stand,” according to Spain’s El Confidencial. Later, she faced criticism as media reports revealed that she brought a personal friend with no official position on the presidential plane by issuing her a diplomatic passport and put her in charge of event planning during the NATO summit. The opposition Democratic Party likened the incident to the Choi Soon-sil scandal, when former President Park Geun-hye was impeached for having her friend with no official position handle government affairs and peddle influence.

To be sure, Yoon has good enough reasons not to antagonize China. Especially in a difficult global economy—South Korea’s international trade in July, including its trade with China, recorded its largest deficit in 66 years—China’s importance as South Korea’s largest trading partner looms even larger. But balancing diplomacy, surely, requires a greater finesse than the bungled and confused welcome that Yoon gave Pelosi.

If Seoul’s goal was to avoid wading into the Taiwan issue, there were many ways of doing so without offending one of the most senior officials of South Korea’s most important ally. Yoon, for example, could have met with Pelosi with a proper welcome, then focused the public discussion entirely on North Korea’s denuclearization. Meeting Pelosi could have also been a helpful catalyst for resolving the impasse between South Korea and Japan, as she has been a longtime advocate for justice for the so-called comfort women, the elderly Korean women who were former sex slaves of the imperial Japanese military.

But the truth is it almost does not matter what Yoon’s precise intentions were—because whatever they may have been, he was not able to execute them. He won’t magically transform into a smooth negotiator in short order. As a political novice, Yoon only has a small circle of advisors, nearly all of whom (including his wife, an art curator with a penchant for shamanism) are as inexperienced as he is. Meanwhile, facing a plummeting presidential approval rating, Yoon’s veteran staff is beginning to tune him out or head toward the exit.

Pelosi’s visit to Seoul should be a sobering moment for Washington. D.C. foreign-policy circles had quietly cheered for Yoon and against liberal rival Lee Jae-myung during South Korea’s presidential election based on the simplistic and mistaken belief that Korea’s conservatives were pro-United States and Korea’s liberals favored North Korea and China. But the evidence was plain that the foreign policy of South Korea’s conservatives is not all that different from that of their liberal counterparts. Despite his claims to “reconstruct the South Korea-U.S. alliance that collapsed” during the time of his liberal predecessor, Yoon’s more carefully considered words and deeds have indicated that he would stay within the broad strokes of South Korean foreign policy, which simultaneously includes a close relationship with the United States and strategic cooperation with China.

Yoon also amply displayed his inexperience and clumsiness during the presidential campaign. Incompetence, unfortunately, negates all commitment. Whatever ideological leanings Yoon may have are irrelevant if he simply has no capacity to deliver on his promises. At this historical moment, Yoon, the man Washington trusted to keep Seoul in the U.S. lane, is asleep at the wheel as South Korea is swerving wildly.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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